AVONDALE, Arizona — Mario Andretti had just provided thrills driving a two-seat Indy car Saturday afternoon at Phoenix Raceway when he was informed former racing teammate Joe Leonard had passed away.
“Joe, what a great guy in many ways,” said Andretti, 77, still processing the news that Leonard had died at 84 on Thursday in San Jose, California. “We had a lot of fun together on top of being teammates.”
Leonard, a smiling Andretti added, “was a rare breed.”
Leonard made a name for himself first as a motorcycle racer with three AMA Grand National Championships. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1991 for his motorcycle racing.
He turned to auto racing and drove for legends Dan Gurney, A.J. Foyt and Parnelli Jones, as well as with legends as Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing teammates with Andretti and Al Unser from 1972-74.
Because he was surrounded by greatness, some might have overlooked Leonard. He won just six career Indy car races, half of those at Milwaukee. Andretti won 52 races, including the 1969 Indianapolis 500, to rank second on the all-time list. Unser joined Foyt and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the Indy 500 and his 39 career victories rank fifth.
But it was “Smokin’ Joe” who won Indy car season championships in 1971 and 1972 under USAC sanction.
“We had a lot of respect for each other,” Andretti said. “Joe, he was the one out of the super team who won the championship. He showed us all. He was the one who was more patient and kept it all together. We were all happy for him. Great memories, no question.”
Leonard won the pole and was on the verge of his greatest victory in the 1968 Indianapolis 500 when Andy Granatelli’s STP turbine-powered Lotus 56 suffered a broken fuel shaft on Lap 191. He ended up 12th.
His best Indy 500 finishes in nine starts were a pair of thirds in 1967 and ‘72.
“I hate to hear he’s gone but, damn, he was a fighter and a tough SOB,” Foyt told Racer.com’s Robin Miller. “He had a helluva run.”
Andretti remembered Leonard’s fearless nature.
“He would plow through a mountain to achieve what he wanted to achieve,” Andretti said. “You could not be light-hearted to win as many championships as he did on a dirt bike and in speedway racing. He and (John) Surtees were the only ones to win championships on two and four wheels.”
Before he became a prominent Indy car co-owner of Panther Racing, John Barnes recalled when he was a wide-eyed, 21-year-old mechanic who joined Vel’s Parnelli Jones Racing in 1973.
“All of those people were gods,” Barnes said of Andretti, Unser and Leonard. “But Joe, he did so many different types of racing. He was a great motorcycle racer before he came to Indy car, and he drove for so many different people. Everybody knew that whenever he was in the car, he was going to push it to the limit and get everything he could out of it.”
Barnes, like Andretti, was attending Saturday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix and had not heard of Leonard’s passing.
“I remember him getting hurt at Ontario (Speedway in California),” Barnes said. “He almost passed away that day – severe leg injuries – it was a tough battle for him to get back. For him to last as long as he did with the injuries he had – he had head injuries, leg injuries – you didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Andretti laughed as he shared stories about how much fun he and Unser had with Leonard. Sometimes, it was at Leonard’s expense.
“It’s all in fun, but he could be gullible,” Andretti said. “His wife used to tell him, ‘You know, Joe, you’re just not making enough money. Those guys, look at Al and Andretti, they probably make 10 times what you make.’”
As the story goes, the drivers were having breakfast at a Holiday Inn where the names of the drivers were attached to menu items. A.J. Foyt was steak and eggs, Andretti was sausage and eggs, Cale Yarborough was a short stack of pancakes.
“I just winked at Al,” Andretti said. “‘Hey, Al, did you get the last payment on this?’ Al said, ‘Well, no.’ I said, ‘Tell you what, last year it was $25,000. This year, they told me it was going to be $35,000. And I didn’t get the check yet.’
“Joe looked up and says, ‘You mean you guys are getting paid for this?’ ‘Yeah, but it’s frickin’ peanuts, like $35,000.’ Joe slammed his (utensils) down, he ran for the manager, who was a short guy. He had the guy on the floor (and yelled), ‘I want my damn check!’”